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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on February 26, 2010

Considering all options

Alan Lamond, aviation director at Pascall+Watson Architects, considers how airport design is adapting to the downturn.

When tracked over the past 50 years, the aviation industry has had the luxury of experiencing an almost relentless increase in demand, but the recent turbulence in the world economy has curtailed that growth and once again shown that aviation is not recession proof.

Even in the good times, the airline sector did not display consistent profitability and it seems inevitable that in the wake of a drop in demand, which seems set to continue for at least the short-term, airlines will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future.

Faced with a tough time ahead, airlines have had to face up to a radical reassessment of every single item of their expenditure and inevitably have focused upon airport charges.

Airline accusations that airport charges are too high are nothing new, of course, but in today’s difficult operating environment airports are under pressure to becoming more efficient, highly flexible and adaptable to meet demand from an ever-changing market.

For airport designers, this will entail an even greater focus on value. They need to identify reductions in both capital and operational expenditure and simultaneously generate improvements in revenue.

The role of the airport’s chief financial officer has never been more important and renewed emphasis will be placed on scrutinising options to find the optimal solutions. In this operating environment, designers need to appreciate that the default option for many operators will be to do nothing.

In these challenging times, the role of good design is even more important. Airport designers need to be able to demonstrate that they truly understand the operational and financial drivers that underpin additional or even continued investment in airport facilities. We need to be able to incorporate all of our hard earned experience with imaginative reappraisals of traditional airport processes and systems.

The approach to designing and delivering airport projects will continue to change, and the key to survival in an increasingly competitive market for airport operators will be to find new and better ways of doing things.

We basically need to identify all possible ways in which additional capacity can be accommodated without expensive expansion.

Can the layout of terminals be improved and allied to other technological advances to help speed the passenger through their journey? After all, if we can reduce the average check-in time by 50% then the same check-in hall can accommodate double the number of peak hour passengers.

We should be re-assessing existing terminals to identify what reconfigurations are possible to help move passengers more effectively through the airport. How can we incorporate ever increasing security demands while maintaining the primary goal of making the passengers’ journey as simple, straightforward, timely and hassle free as possible?

Interestingly, such an approach to terminal design might well earn lower fees for us as architects, but it is not only our duty but a desire to provide the best possible advice for our clients and their passengers.

Clients should expect their consultants, now more than ever, to consider their interests in the fullest possible manner with due consideration of the affordability and deliverability of all projects.

We should not seek to encourage new gleaming, grandiose developments that do not respond to the inherent commercial realities of the new economic order. In fact, management initiatives may yield operational and commercial benefits without any changes to infrastructure.

I would much rather have the respect from my clients for the integrity of my advice based upon a thorough understanding of their challenges and opportunities; this is the only way we can develop mutually beneficial relationships.

Another opportunity for airport operators and developers is to take a long hard look at the space they use and undertake some comparative benchmarking.

From our extensive experience in different parts of the globe, we know that there are some huge variations in floor space provision for seemingly identical functions. Sometimes these variations are for sound functional or cultural reasons including aspirations of differentiation, however, there are many occasions where there is no logical reason why twice, three times or even four times as much space per passenger is provided.

As an example, the front of house area allocated for check-in areas can vary wildly depending on the readiness of airports and airlines to embrace the technologically inspired opportunities such as internet check-in, CUTE, CUSS and self service bag drop.

However, the full complexities and inter-relationships inherent in any major international airport operation must be fully understood as dramatically improving the potential throughput of passengers at check-in, for example, is likely to dramatically increase the pressure on the departures baggage system.

Wherever airport operators and developers are planning a new build, they should really explore how they can achieve maximum capacity within the minimum floor plate, delivering efficiency and allowing them to respond to the upturn that will inevitably come.

The simplest and clearest architectural solution is often the best way forward. Flexibility is absolutely essential, as we know that we cannot predict the future accurately and the aviation industry is even more dynamic than most others.

Terminal designs should be tested against a variety of different potential configurations in order to be able to respond as efficiently as possible as demand bends and flexes.

The underlying environmental challenge for the aviation industry must also be addressed, energetically and constructively. We must seek the best possible environmental and sustainable performance for all airport buildings, new and old. And as part of any reconfiguration and refurbishment projects in existing terminals, we should seek out every opportunity to transform existing infrastructure with a greatly reduced energy and carbon footprint.

The single most important beneficial impact we can have is to use airport buildings as efficiently as possible and this entails the least initial construction and the least operational impact.

An increase in capacity within the same building envelope will see a corresponding reduction in the average environmental footprint per passenger, which is directly reflected in reduced running costs.

In an environment where every penny counts, this will be welcomed by the regulator, operator, airline and environmental campaigner alike.

Finally, any project should be embraced as a chance to improve customer experience. This is not only critical for airports that compete for customers on identical routes, for example in London, but also to maximise the retail spend of all customers.

Well informed design can create the relaxing, hassle free environment, which is essential to optimise the passengers’ departures lounge experience.

It has long been understood that calm passengers use the retail and catering facilities to a much greater extent, and therefore have the potential to provide the airport operators with a significant proportion of their income.

Already, we have seen airports re-examining their investment plans in a desperate effort to reduce or postpone costs. The future will be poorly served if our industry over-reacts to the current crisis in confidence. We should grasp the many opportunities that exist to seek even better ways to design and deliver the additional capacity that passengers’ desire within the most environmentally appropriate solutions conceivable.

Clear sighted development proposals, robust yet appropriately flexible, which look at the bigger picture and identify how all the components and systems work together, will help us strike the right balance between customer convenience and revenue, passenger amenities and operational efficiency and, of course, economy.

Airport World 2010 - Issue 1

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